New B.C. Lions ownership likely won’t happen until after the pandemic: Farhan Lalji

Photo courtesy: McMaster/Ron Scheffler

Following the passing of long-time B.C. Lions owner and CFL stalwart David Braley last month, plenty of speculation has swirled around the future of Canada’s westernmost football franchise.

While the Hamilton-based businessman was rumoured to be selling the club for almost the entire decade before his death, Lions’ fans shouldn’t expect any clarity on new ownership in the near future.

“I know there are people interested in buying the team and they’re willing to buy it now knowing the expected financial losses, but I don’t necessarily think there is incentive for that to happen today,” Farhan Lalji said when asked about the potential sale on TSN 1040 radio in Vancouver on Friday.

“Do I think they are going to get sold? Yes, I do. Do I have a sense of who the interested parties are? Yes, they are some of the names you’ve heard before. Now it’s just a case of timing. Do you want to step into it now or do you want to wait until the worst of it is behind you in terms of the losses and step in next December after whatever the season is going to look like?”

The family has not yet made known its official intention to sell, though Lalji would be surprised if they held on to the asset long term. In the short term, there is neither pressure nor incentive to rush a sale.

Lalji confirmed earlier reports that Braley had put aside a substantial amount of money to run the Lions after his death, enough for three regularly financed seasons. That won’t go nearly as far in a COVID world, but it does mean the club has financial wiggle room remaining. Those funds can cover immediate losses in 2021, something prospective buyers are unlikely to be happy absorbing.

David Braley put aside money to allow the Lions to operate for ‘several seasons’

“I certainly don’t think the franchise is worth anything today,” Lalji said frankly. “I’m not saying that as a shot, but if it was worth $10 million and you are going to lose $10 million this year because of COVID, that pretty much nets you out at zero.”

The struggling Leos need radical changes to their business model to be successful under new ownership and Lalji believes there is a model for success locally.

“Look at the Whitecaps (Vancouver’s MLS franchise). Just look at their front office infrastructure, their sales staff, their event staff, the amount of people they have involved,” he said. “The crowds haven’t been significant the last couple of years because of the way things have gone on the field and certainly some transgressions off of it that have hurt the franchise, but when you look at what they are putting into it, that is where the Lions need to go. We’re not talking about Canucks level, but you need to get to that (Whitecaps) level in terms of your office infrastructure, your promotions and ticket sales.”

Lalji believes there are prospective buyers out there with the vision and business acumen to return the club to that type of prominence in the market.

“I think the business people who want to get involved have that understanding and the capacity for what needs to happen to try and get back to where it was 2011-2013 when they were in that window of thirty thousand for attendance. I think that is still possible,” Lalji explained.

“The one thing with David Braley was that he just wasn’t willing to commit the resources to take it forward. But he was certainly willing to commit the resources to tread water, make payroll and do that kind of thing, and he’s got to be given credit for that, especially during COVID.”

Stephen Brunt shares harsh realities of David Braley: ‘I will speak honestly of the dead’

The team will have that new owner sometime in the future but it’s unlikely to happen until after the pandemic is over. That means more waiting for Lions fans who have grown increasingly frustrated with the state of the club. Lalji believes that Braley could never bring himself to divest from the team, even if he’d talked about it for years.

“He just didn’t want to sell. Yes, there was talk the last seven or eight years, but he just did not want to part with the team. He didn’t want to give up a seat at the table in terms of his influence with the CFL,” he said.

That amount of waiting and the current financial climate means the next owner of the Leos will likely be a lot different from the last one.

“There have always been guys who want to buy it. The one thing with David is he didn’t want to sell it to a group. He wanted to sell to someone like him, a big benefactor who could underwrite everything,” Lalji explains. “That probably isn’t what this is going to look like but that doesn’t mean it can’t work.”